Moral Body Armor - I wrote this column many years ago for Officer.com. It is still relevant today.

It’s easy, in retrospect, to talk about some of the tough ethical choices I made during my career. And I know I have minimized a lot of the bad choices I made in favor of a more acceptable memory; so be it. Still, there are plenty that bother me to this day. A rookie officer needs to find their own way and they need to be accepted in the department where they work. This is true as a matter of human nature and true as a matter of survival in police work. There was the young Native American burglar who was also stealing cars. My training officer and I caught him in a stolen with what appeared to be the cache from a burglary. He refused to talk about the car or the electronics in the back seat. My trainer told me to soften him up a little to get him to talk. So I did. I really showed him how tough I was, punching him while he was in handcuffs, thinking I was going to get some sort of useful information from him and show my trainer how I was one of the guys. The only one who was tough was him. He never said a word. He just smiled at me, and I felt sick.  

He taught me something that night. He taught me that I was weak because I didn’t have the guts to not punch him after my training officer told me to. That wasn't the only lesson learned that night. I taught that young man something too; that cops are brutal and stupid. There is probably no way that kid ever changed his attitude about cops after what I did that night. His family probably feels the same way. There was one change that took place that night, in me. I swore I would never do something like that again. I felt terrible. I made plenty of other mistakes in later years but punching someone in handcuffs just to hurt them was not one of them. Almost thirty years later, as I sat down to write a book on police ethics I thought about that incident and I wanted to write something that would help new officers make better choices than I made.

So I wrote about the importance of stepping in and stopping another officer when their conduct gets out of line. It makes a lot more sense to me than going to internal affairs or civilian review with relatively minor offenses. But I had forgotten how hard it can be to take that step, till recently.

I was working with this person for the first time. They seemed full of energy and ready and willing to take on the world but they were treating prisoners like shit and clearly making them angry. It was a small thing really. The prisoners were hardcore gang members. They’d been through the system before and it was no surprise to them that the cellblock was cold. They knew before we closed the door that blankets were available so they asked for them, respectfully, if not politely. My partner’s response was “Does this look like the F’ng Marriott Hotel to you?” Then my partner walked them into their cell without the blankets. His response to their request for blankets surprised me but not as much as my own reluctance to say something to him right then and there. I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the prisoners, but here was a situation exactly as I outlined in my book, a minor incident with a chance to step in and make a small difference and yet I hesitated.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not in the business of making life comfortable for gang members that are on their way to their next prison cell. But making prisoners angry just because you can is an officer safety issue. I didn’t want them acting out their anger on me or someone else just because my partner felt it was necessary to demonstrate that he was in control. A minute or two later I got the blankets out and was walking them back to the prisoners when my partner started chipping on me about being nice to criminals. I responded by reminding him that they were more likely to nap or at least lay down and relax if they had a blanket to keep warm. His response was unpleasant.

A couple days later I am in the courtroom with the same partner and once again he is going out of his way to make a prisoner unhappy. By now I have had a couple days to think about what I should have said to him the first time we worked together and I go through a short litany of why making a prisoner angry, just for the sake of making him angry, potentially compromises another officer’s safety. His response was ambiguous at best but I think I might have reached him on some level. At the very least he knows what to expect from me.

But the question I had to ask myself was “Why wasn’t I able to challenge him immediately when the bad behavior first occurred?” That’s what I advocate when I speak about moral courage yet, when it came time, I hesitated. I was reminded that it’s hard to step in like that, even on relatively minor issues. Maybe that’s the problem. On big, clear-cut, in your face, go-to-jail-lose-your-job issues the decision to step in is almost made for you. It’s the smaller ones that we feel safe walking away from. We can rationalize that they are no big deal because no one is getting hurt and it’s just a whole lot easier if we don’t confront our coworkers.

But we don’t develop moral courage from walking away. Like the body armor you wear with your uniform your moral body armor is made up of many very small threads, woven in a special pattern, a pattern that you weave and create each and every time you take on one of the small issues. And likewise, every time you walk away a thread goes missing from the pattern and you are the weaker for it. Doing the right thing is hard and it can be especially hard with the smaller issues because they are the easiest to walk away from. Think about the pattern you are weaving with your life. Weave a pattern that matters.